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If you don’t know already, I’m of Iranian decent. I was born in Tehran, but because of persistent socio-political instability in that region of the world, my family and I immigrated out of the country about 20 years ago. But just cause I live somewhere else doesn’t mean I’m not interested in my background. I’ve always been curious and inquisitive about my heritage. I’ve come to understand my mother’s and father’s lineage come from very different cultural backgrounds.

My mother’s family have been established Tehranians for quite sometime and because of the nature of big city life, their heritage has been mixed and lost. But if you look at members of my mother’s family, they are fair skinned and have blond hair with green or blue eyes. Often, they get mistaken for Europeans, which leads me to think they have a different heritage from my father’s side of the family. I’ve sequenced a short bit of my mtDNA and can only figure out that my maternal lineage has the haplotype H4 signature, which is very frequent in middle eastern populations, and not enough of a resolving feature to really make make any strong conclusions about where that half of me comes from.

Bakhtiari Women on HorsesWhat we know of my father’s family differs greatly. My dad’s parents hauled out of Lorestan and into Tehran. Lorestan is a western Iranian province smack dab in the Zagros Mountains. It is sometimes home to the Bakhtiari, a nomadic pastoralist group that you may have been introduced in your cultural anthropology learnings. The Bakhtiari regularly speak Luri, a language that’s classified as Indo-Iranian. Indo-Iranian languages are distinct from languages spoken by Semitic peoples, such as Arabic and Hebrew, if you want more information about this distinction check out Ethnologue.com.

Suffice to say, I got really interested to stumble upon an early online release paper from the Annals of Human Genetics, which investigates the, “Close Genetic Relationship Between Semitic-speaking and Indo-European-speaking Groups in Iran,” because it has tangents to at least half of my known heritage. Academics from the Max Planck Powerhouse of Evolutionary Anthropology and Tehran University collaborated on figuring out who the Bakhtiari are related to.

In order to carry out the study 99 people were sampled from a different province, Khuzestan, with almost 50 to 50 ratio of people from both ethnicities. The authors honed in on comparing the mtDNA HV1 sequences, eleven Y chromosome bi-allelic markers, and 9 Y-STR loci. STRs are a class of polymorphisms that, like microsatellites, consist of a repeated pattern of two or more nucleotides. The repeats are directly adjacent to each other and can range in length from 2 to 10 base pairs. They usually exist in the non-coding introns of genes.

Anyways, all these different loci show that the Iranian-Arabs share close relatedness of to the Bakhtiari as well as with neighboring geographic groups, irrespective of the language spoken. Haplogroups J2 and G are especially intriguing because they are found in really high frequencies in Bakhtiari and Iranian-Arab populations. Like I mentioned above, the Bakhtiari are a distinctly different cultural group that speak a Indo-Iranian language which does not belong to the Afro-Asiatic linguistic family that classify Semitic speaking Iranian-Arabs. Many cultural barriers have been formed to keep the Bakhtiari way of life unique, and one of them is language. So it doesn’t make sense that these two linguistically separate groups share two haplogroup signatures in such a disproportionally high frequency.

mtDNA haplogroups in Indo-European-speaking groups and in Semitic-speaking groups

A comparison of Iranian-Arabs to other Semitic speaking groups showed that Semitic-speaking North African groups are way more distant genetically from Semitic-speaking groups from the Near East and Iran. The above illustration documents this. Haplogroup L is almost nonexistent east of Iraq, despite the fact there are Semitic speaking populations in foothills of the Zagros mountains in Iran.

Now, I said that was surprising because often language is a big barrier, as recently expressed by Razib with the Slavs as an example. In Iran however, a different situation exists. There is a lack of significant differentiation between west Asian Semitic-speaking and Indo-European-speaking groups indicates that language has not been a substantial barrier to gene flow in this part of the world. But this leads me to wonder about the origins of Iranian-Arabs, if they are genetically less similar to other Semitic speakers, doesn’t that imply they were ‘cultural converts’?

P.S., If you do read the paper, take note of the disclaimer the authors put about inscribing identity.